Fayette County

Will Lexington get a new city hall? The discussion restarts soon.

The current Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Center, 200 East Main Street.
The current Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Center, 200 East Main Street. Herald-Leader

To move or not to move?

The Lexington council will revisit the complicated question of whether it’s cheaper to stay put or find a new home for city government during a special meeting Feb. 7.

The city of Lexington has discussed for more than a decade whether it should move out of its five downtown buildings to one central location as the city’s buildings continue to age and maintenance costs climb.

It got close to moving last fall after nearly a decade of false starts and scuttled plans. A group of city employees chose a proposal by CRM Companies from four potential bidders that included remodeling and expanding the current Lexington Herald-Leader building on Main Street and Midland Avenue.

The Lexington council ultimately voted in September not to move forward with negotiations after some members of the 15-member council raised questions about the deal. Some didn’t like the location. Others questioned whether it would be cheaper for the city to build its own city government center. Some wanted the city to sell or have a buyer for its current buildings before moving.

Vice Mayor Steve Kay said the Feb. 7 meeting will help the Lexington-Fayette Urban County council — which includes three new council members elected Nov. 6 — determine how it wants to move forward. The February meeting is just the start of a much longer discussion, Kay said.

“I think the question on whether we need a new city hall has been answered,” Kay said. “We understand that the buildings that we are in now are an economic drain.”

How to pay for a new government center is a central question that has to be answered, he said.

“Do we want to build it ourselves? Do we want to go with public-private partnership?”

Kay said those questions have to be answered before the city moves forward.

Mayor Linda Gorton said Wednesday her budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is unlikely to include any money for a new city government center. Gorton, who was elected in November, will unveil her budget proposal in early April. Until the council gets on the same page, Gorton said it would be “too soon” to set aside money for a new city hall.

“I will be interested in what kind of discussion they have,” Gorton said of the Feb. 7 meeting. “Eventually, this whole issue is going to have to be a joint issue. But right now, I’m going to listen.”

The main government building on Main Street is the former Lafayette Hotel and is now more than 100 years old. The contractor who fixes the building’s elevators has to find replacement parts on eBay and other websites. Costs continue to climb to maintain the building and the city’s other buildings, which include the county clerk and police station on Main street, a building attached to the former Lafayette Hotel, and the Phoenix building on Vine Street.

The CRM proposal would have cost the city approximately $5.1 million a year over 35 years. It included moving city employees from five downtown buildings to the Herald-Leader building, which CRM Companies had an option to buy.

CRM Companies said it would guarantee $3.1 million a year for maintenance and operating costs. The $5.1 million a year lease was an additional $2.6 million over the city’s current operating costs of about $2.4 million for the city’s buildings.

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council considered a developer's proposal to move city hall to the offices of the Lexington Herald-Leader in 2018. CRM Companies had proposed gutting and expanding the building.

Gorton said “it’s going to be a real tight budget” come July 1.

“I think it will be difficult to do any new projects,” Gorton said. “There is a lot of time left in this year to look at revenues and then to see where we are.”

Beth Musgrave has covered government and politics for the Herald-Leader for more than a decade. A graduate of Northwestern University, she has worked as a reporter in Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi, Illinois and Washington D.C.